A film review by Craig J. Koban August 17, 2020


2020, R, 93 mins.

Liam Neeson as Robert  /  Valeria Bilello as Natalia  /  Micheál Richardson as Jack  /  Lindsay Duncan as Kate

Writing and directed by James D'Arcy


MADE IN ITALY is an unendingly charming and deeply personal drama made with an added aura of meta heartache and sorrow.  

It stars real life father and son tandem Liam Neeson and Michael Richardson playing a fictional father and son tandem that are dealing with the tragic loss of their wife/mother, who died in a hellish car accident.  Neeson's own wife and Richardson's mother, Natasha Richardson, very famously perished in a 2009 skiing accident, which makes the whole emotionally undercurrent of MADE IN ITALY all the more palpable.  There's nothing else inherently trend setting here in terms of narrative trajectory  (in terms of being a story of a grieving father/son as well as a travelogue film, a lot of the plot here sort of runs on predictable autopilot).  Still, it's the authenticity - born out of painful past occurrences off camera - of the lead actors here that rule the day, and much like another drama from earlier this year in ORDINARY LOVE, it's a treat to see Neeson play tender roles outside of his usual tough guy action hero facade. 

Early on in the film we're introduced to the financially struggling Jack (Richardson), who runs a relatively small art gallery, albeit with some added complications in the form of his business partner, who just so happens to be his wife and is now filing for divorce.  In an ultimate kick to the groin move, she tells Jack that her majority owning family is going to sell the gallery, much to his dismay.  All poor Jack wants to do is own the gallery outright and run it all on his own, but he's seriously short on cash to step up to the plate and buy it our from his soon-to-be-ex's family.  Jack has one ace up his sleeve in the form of a Tuscan villa that has been in his dead mother's family for years, so he decides that the time is right to sell it to the first prospective buyer and secure his art gallery ownership dreams.  And besides, the villa has been unoccupied and collecting dust for years in the aftermath of his mother's untimely passing. 

Here's the thing, though: Jack will need the obvious blessing and fix-it help of his semi-estranged bohemian father, Robert (Neeson), who was once an extremely talented artist that was poised for superstardom, but then let his work slide after his wife's death.  Now, Robert is a pathetic skirt chaser that has little creative spark, let alone any interest in revisiting the past by returning to the villa.  Nevertheless, Jack convinces Robert to come and help him, which be begrudgingly does, and as the pair re-enter the villa they soon realize that it's going to take an astounding amount of work to get it into acceptable re-sell shape.  That, and the more time they spend there the more agonizing memories of their wife/mother come up to the surface.  Jack finds some solace, though, in the form of Natalia (Valeria Bilello), who in a rather contrived manner shows up in the film with the screenplay requires a single and beautiful woman to fill the void that Jack's wife left in his heart.  That, and she's the owner of a popular Italian restaurant that makes pasta to die for. 



Again, one of the simple pleasures of MADE IN ITALY comes in the form of the incredibly natural chemistry that industry veteran Neeson and his much more greenhorn son in Richardson have on screen together, which, obviously enough, has much to do with their real life relationship.  Actor turned writer/director James D'Arcy (making his filmmaking debut here) clearly understands what this acting duo could bring to his film, which is all but amplified by the grief they both experienced after the death of Natasha Richardson.  Kudos needs to be given to Neeson and his son, mostly because not too many acting families would want to re-live out their own well documented history of loss and suffering in a film that's written with some eerie and too-close-to-home parallels.  Both the characters in MADE IN ITALY and the performers behind them have had to endure unimaginable past tragedies, and the best moments of the film cuts to the absolute core with an unflinching honesty.  It's probably not saying much to reveal that the much more famous and experienced Neeson is the star attraction here (sometimes, the very decent Richardson seems mightily overshadowed by his dear old dad), but his work here shows that that near-70-year-old actor is just as nimble and capable in roles that require a adept hand at drama and comedy as he is playing hardened bad asses in the TAKEN series.  If I was Neeson talking to my agent I'd be like, "More of this, please." 

D'Arcy also makes a sumptuously gorgeous film on a level of pure eye candy.  MADE IN ITALY is a travelogue lover's wet dream, and the cameras here are positively enamored with every sun-drenched Tuscan vistas (cinematographer Mike Eley shoots the film like a nature documentary throughout, which is definitely not a criticism, because MADE IN ITALY is a work on endlessly lush and bright hued visual delights).  There's also an added layer of viewer melancholy while watching this film, seeing as we're all trapped mostly at home and with travel gravely restricted because of our current pandemic, making such real excursions to places like Italy all but impossible for us now.  MADE IN ITALY, arguably more so now than it would have otherwise under normal release circumstance, has an unintended and heightened level of pure cinematic escapism in the way it transports you to a place none of us can go to now. 

Unfortunately, D'Arcy's rookie efforts here at times come off  like the product of an inexperienced writer/director.  When one starts to look modestly at the basic storytelling on display it becomes very easy to deduce exactly where this film is heading (father and son will mend their broken relationship through the power of rebuilding the villa and reminiscing on their shared memories of time spent there with their wife/mother); no viewer will require any kind of roadmap when it comes to steering through all of the family reconciling dramatic conventions on display.  On top of that, the romantic subplot between Jack and Natalia (despite some solid chemistry between the very likeable Richardson and Biello) is about as cliché riddled as it gets, especially in the manner that she becomes easy therapy for the approaching divorce settlement devastated Jack.   It's kind of a shame, because Biello in particular is a luminous screen presence that could have an entire film built just around her and her restaurant, but she's kind of stuck playing a plot driving device more so than an actual flesh and blood person.  The actress just deserves better. 

There are other elements that don't work so well either, like a recurring subplot involving some loathsomely self-serving and social media obsessed millennial buyers that are so unbearably over-the-top in their few scenes that they feel like they've been hijacked from a whole different film altogether.  Ultimately, I probably shouldn't be recommending MADE IN ITALY, which stems mostly from some of its artificial writing and predictable nature, but it's pretty hard to overlook what a deeply intimate film this clearly was for its two stars.  The film reminds viewers why Neeson is probably one of the finer and more versatile actors to have never won an Oscar, and the shared dynamic that he has with his son in Richardson is immediately a potent one on screen.  And, damn, this film is jaw droppingly gorgeous to look at and makes one wish they could book a trip, hop on a plane, and journey to the heart of Tuscany.  MADE IN ITALY isn't a fine cuisine, but it goes down satisfyingly easy and is worth a cheap VOD rental fee. 

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